Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

What to Eat in Bolzano, Alto Adige

When you’re in the capital of the northernmost province of Italy on the Austrian border (a/k/a Bozen, Südtirol), surrounded by architecture like this,

which is surrounded by landscape like this,

then you simply must surrender to the aura by gorging on a dizzifyng array of dumplings—be they ravioli filled with spinach & ricotta di bufala, sprinkled with the unique local cheese known as graukäse,

at Zum Kaiserkron, which looks like this,

or the robust bread or potato dumplings called knödel, flavored at Loacker Moccaria with spinach & curd cheese alongside lentil salad.

You will invariably snack on copious amounts of speck, the indigenous lightly smoked ham. It may be accompanied by a mousse of herbed local goat cheese, rhubarb-strawberry salad, & the hearty brown bread called vinschgauer, as at Loacker Moccaria,

or it may be lightly fried & rolled around an orb of fresh, creamy mozzarella.

If you are really lucky, it will be followed by tagliatelle flavored with the ubiquitous crunchy flatbread called Schüttelbrot, tossed with delicate veal ragù, morels & pfifferlings (chanterelles).

If you are really, really lucky, that will in turn be followed by Schüttelbrot-crusted lamb chops over the tenderest of knödel, evoking gnocchi.

That’s not at all guaranteed, since the above was part of a catered lunch in advance of the Wine Tasting Forum at the Castel Mareccio, a/k/a Schloss Maretsch.

But I can promise you’ll encounter many an equivalent all around town. Top it off with a piece of apfelkuchen, relatively light, not too sweet.

And we’ve only just begun; click here for my detailed discussion of these & other specialties on ZesterDaily.

Dirty Laundry List 2011: Every Single Thing I Tasted in Boston Tuesday-Sunday

Can you guess where I’ve been? Cocktails not included, ditto bread baskets.

oysters on the 1/2-shell (x4)
fried oyster sliders
pancetta-crusted broiled oysters
oyster stew
clam chowder (x2)
razor clams with bacon
lobster roll
cider doughnuts with caramel sauce
Caesar salad
antipasto salad
whipped lardo with crostini & olives
peel & eat Old Bay shrimp
carpetbagger steak
sticky toffee pudding
acili ezme
piyaz salat
paca
mercimek kofte
imam biyaldi
sigara borek
mucver
haydari
burma
keskul
sutlac
za’atar pita
tahini toast
oyster crackers
bay scallop crudo
buttermilk johnnycake with smoked trout tartare & caviar
anchovy & air-dried tuna on pork-fat toast
Neptunes on piggyback (big hint)
steamers
pulpitos alla plancha
smoked salmon & pork shank rillettes
yellowfin crostini with brandade
pepperoni pizza
spinach-ricotta arancino
chocolate-peanut butter bar
Asian pickle sampler
shrimp-jicama rolls with chili-peanut sauce
crispy spring rolls
fried oysters with fermented black bean sauce & pickled bean sprouts
green papaya slaw
5-spice grilled tofu bao
potstickers with shiitake mushrooms & Chinese greens
potstickers with lemony shrimp
tofu, sesame & celery salad
hakka eggplant
sweet potato fritters with Chinese sausage
lemon-ginger mousse with homemade fortune cookie
coconut cream pie with lime whipped cream
prosciutto-wrapped blackened tuna with queso fresco
pancetta-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese
grilled Caesar salad with corn salsa
grilled mixed mushrooms (yellowfoot, chanterelle, white trumpet) with tomato-ginger chutney
pan-seared scallops with foie gras, avocado & acorn squash puree, & sundried strawberry-arbol salsa
tequila-braised pork shanks with white corn polenta, smoked tomato grits, & fried chard
grilled swordfish with truffle risotto, pumpkin cream sauce & pumpkin salsa
pecan tart with black lava sea salt caramel
roasted pig’s tail with mostarda glaze
salt cod crostini
marinated cauliflower with thyme
rabbit “porchetta”
fish tacos
yuca gnocchi with green lamb ragù
crab-potato causa
lasagna (I woke up with it next to me; vague memories of the counter at Vinny’s Superette. Otherwise a mystery)
+ 1 banana

***Disgustingly full reports to come.***

Last Dispatch from Boston 2010: Bin 26 Enoteca, Brasserie Jo, & a few words about Poe’s Kitchen & Erbaluce

The definition of enoteca appears to be expanding even in Italy to cover a range of wine shops and bars, but as I’ve experienced them in Venice, Rome, Orvieto, Bologna, Parma & a few other cities & towns here & there, enoteche are predominantly rustic, woody neighborhood joints, serving local wines from barrels as well as by the bottle, plus simple, hearty snacks (which may be called cicchetti, spuntini, stuzzichini or various other names depending on the region).

Beacon Hill’s chic, streamlined boutique Bin 26 isn’t one of those. Though the menu’s indeed comprised of Italian small plates, it emphasizes modern elegance, while the ambitious wine list spans the globe—& both are priced accordingly. But they’re also a treat: interesting, smart & executed with more sprezzatura than self-seriousness. In fact, the latter isn’t just a list—it’s a veritable primer, packed with clever, user-frieindly tidbits like the following (click to enlarge):

B26winelist
Nice, right? Equally user-friendly from a tasting standpoint are a terrific range of offerings by the glass, quartino, half-bottle & bottle (granted, that very structure tends to facilitate an inflated price point), laden with underappreciated varietals like Insolia & Brachetto. And you can expect the same combination of warmth & precision from the food (although that doesn’t come as such a surprise to anyone who knows it’s owned by siblings Azita Bina-Seibel & Babak Bina of long-standing Persian rose Lala Rokh; I imagine, not having been there, the same is true of their latest, Bina Osteria, although again, the name is misleading, an osteria being by definition a humble place serving simple fare, not a gleaming Ritz-Carlton outlet where $30 lamb loin millefoglie is what’s for dinner).

Not that white anchovies need much caretaking—just a little quality olive oil & plenty of lemon juice to underscore their refreshing but mild sour tang, a revelation if your experience is limited to tins of tiny bones & salt.

B26anchovies

More elaborate was the timbale of chilled crab & squid salad—light & clean on its own, a nifty surprise when combined with a bite of the warm polenta. The juxtaposition of cold & hot ingredients on the same plate is, I think, underrated—perhaps because it’s as often as not a mistake as a choice. But when it’s the latter—fresh chips & guacamole, pie à la mode—the effect is startlingly appealing.

B26salad
Generous as it was, the portion of bruschetta with sauteed mushrooms, fontina & garlic I received was the the slightly unwieldy exception to the rule of precision here; at about half their thickness, the very crusty slices of bread would’ve been easier to chew, especially as the mushroom juices & cheese penetrated them a bit more deeply.

B26bruschetta

But the signature cocoa tagliatelle with porcini ragù was just as I remembered it from my first taste a few years ago: wonderful, less rich & more subtle than it looks, the bittersweetly earthy overtones of the pasta enhanced by a bare hint of nepitella, which tastes something like a hybrid of mint & sage.

B26pasta
If memory serves fairly well, then, I can also wholeheartedly recommend the carpaccio—traditional with aged parm, arugula & a lemon vinaigrette (sorry, “tarragon citronelle”)—as well as the spaghetti con frutti di mare in a light, spicy tomato sauce. But for lunch, just the pictured plates washed down with a couple of glasses of Brachetto d’Acqui—the irresistible strawberry soda pop of Italian wines—while seated at the bar on a sunny Tuesday afternoon overlooking Beacon St.
B26

felt about as good & right &, hey, classy as I ever feel.

Bin 26 Enoteca on Urbanspoon

***
As compared, say, to how I felt when the Director, a crew of old Chowhound buddies & I stumbled into Brasserie Jo late 1 night, having already been chowing & hounding for, I lie not, 7 hours straight (more on that anon). But then, this stalwart in the Colonnade Hotel always was 1 of my favorite shelters in a shitstorm. Or in a literal one, for that matter. Or in a lull, for that matter; blowing from out of a raw chill into

Brasseriejorest18 here

to loll around at the warmly lit Art Deco bar (preferably unoccupied by lovey-dovey yuppie scum!)
Brasseriejorest05

& nibble on croque monsieurs & oysters in the off-hours—mid-afternoon, late night—had a way of making everything okay.

But nothing could right 7 hours’ worth of wrongs—unless it was doing so much more wrong we’d come out the other side into the bright light of rightness again. Worth a try, am I right (or wrong)?

So we tried, starting with what every meal at Brasserie Jo starts with—a warm, crusty baguette in a paper bag (so nice when that’s not just a travelogue cliché), served with butter & a mysterious but always welcome plate of crisply marinated, herbed carrots—
BJbaguette BJcarrots

plus what my every meal here starts with: steak tartare.

BJtartare

I like my tartare either/or. Either it should be very pure—the barest amount of binder & seasoning to provide almost undetectable support to the raw beef in all its beefy rawness—or very tarted up, with lots & lots of mustard & egg yolk & capers & spices into which the meat can just about melt. B. Jo’s occupies the latter end of the spectrum—in fact, for the 1st time, I thought it overshot the mark, losing the raw savor altogether.

The rest mostly went by in a blur, from the standard-issue tarte flambée w/ onions, bacon & herbs
BJtarte

to the generously varied charcuterie plate (click to enlarge)—I vaguely recall a suprisingly piquant chicken liver pâté—& fries served in classic fashion, upright.

BJcharcuterie
BJfries

But again, the gist of this place has long, for me, inhered in nonchalance: you breeze in on a whim; you sip some Belgian ale or other; you graze on something impérative—escargots en cocotte, onion soupe gratinée, steak frites, salade niçoise, what have you—while soaking up the retro-Euro vibe; you breeze out casually contented, et voilà.

That we did. But we still failed. Turns out you *can’t* add 2 hours of debauchery to 7 hours of debauchery & come out smelling like anything close to a rose. In the immortal words of (to use her Chowhound moniker) yumyum the next morning: “I blame you.”

Brasserie Jo at the Colonnade Hotel on Urbanspoon

***
Me, I blame various others, including Brian Poe, chef of Poe’s Kitchen at The Rattlesnake, where those 1st 7 hours were frittered away. Because Poe & I have a working relationship that has turned into a friendship, & because those -ships meant that the food was on the house, it would be improper of me to review it in the usual manner. But it’s totally appropriate, I think, for me to praise the tireless charm & good nature of the gentleman himself, while assuring any Bostonian who still associates The ‘Snake with cut-rate culinary afterthoughts that Poe is hell-bent on winning (heh, I just typed “sinning”—that too) hearts & minds via a rip-roaring repertoire that, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum—chock-full of crunchies, creamies, chilies & other gut-gripping delights such as

PKcornbreadthe signature grilled cornbread with Hatch chilies, queso fresco & Guadalajara butter (which you will polish off with a spoon despite your better judgment)
PKlobsterspoons
chilled lobster with grilled avocado in black pepper–lavender crema

PKdessertnachos&, groan-grin-groan, dessert nachos: cinnamon sugar–dusted chips, with cheesecake, berries, chocolate sauce & whipped cream.

So don’t let the naysayers, who may be speaking from the experience of a collegiate margarita whirl-&-hurl 10 years ago, sway you—or me sway you, for that matter. Decide for yourself what you think of Poe’s ambitious doings (venison-brie tacos! burgers with lobster, foie gras & whiskey-cured bacon! grilled doughnuts with champagne foam!)—& do report back.

Rattlesnake Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

***
As for Erbaluce: it was one of those once-in-a-moon-made-of-green-cheese meals that I chose in advance to savor sans camera or critical-thinking cap—in part because the lovely-but-personal circumstances thereof were such that I didn’t want to skew them with my own agenda, in part because the chorus of raves about Charles Draghi’s handsomely intimate contemporary Italian spot in Bay Village is so sonorous that I knew there’d be little point in adding my own goofy pipsqueak (never mind the fact that Draghi has spoken for himself so intelligently right here on this blog).

Suffice it to say the food lives up to its renown—from lobster broth with whelks to an incroyable caul-&-speck-wrapped shad roe with roasted red pepper–pink peppercorn sugo to the signature rack of wild boar, roasted over walnut shells & served with Concord grape mosto—while Draghi lives up to his own reputation as a warm, smart, generous, deeply engaged chef-restaurateur. Kudos e basta.

Oklahoma Yin & Yang: Pho Lien Hoa & Iron Starr Urban Barbecue

Here was what there was to eat in Oklahoma when I was growing up: Steak. Chicken-fried steak. Fried chicken. Biscuits. White gravy. Brown gravy. Fried catfish. French fries. Fried okra. Burgers. The occasional barbecued rib. More steak.

Yet even here, things have changed—not a lot, but enough. In just a couple of decades, for instance, Oklahoma City has become home to a significant Vietnamese population—enough to warrant notice by the New York Times back in ’07, in a piece whose author gave a nod to Pho Lien Hoa (aka Pho Hoa). ‘Twas well-deserved.

But for a couple of apps—including the taut-wrapped & sprightly goi cuon (the ubiquitous but rarely so fresh spring rolls) with a superb, thick, smoky-spicy-sweet dip (note the extra dollop of chili sauce on top)

PLHrolls

& 3 noodle-based dishes (bun), the menu’s composed entirely of soups—nearly 50 in all.

PLH4
That there’s the H4 or hu tiu My Tho, i.e., pork broth with clear noodles, barbecued pork, shrimp, quail eggs, lettuce, scallions, fried onions & such a cute little cracker with a shrimp in the middle.

As uniquely comforting as noodle soups are, the work that goes into them is easy to underestimate. And while quick-witted, intensive multitasking—chopping & peeling & frying & stirring & draining & chopping & frying some more—is key, the ultimate craftsmanship reveals itself in the broth (as anyone who’s ever made stock from scratch, much less tackled, say, a double consommé, knows all too well). This one was unforgettable—light yet tealike in the complexity of its spiced aroma, & just a slight touch sour-&-sweet. You wouldn’t say it was porky in the way you’d say a beef broth tastes beefy or a chicken broth chickeny; that it was in fact porky was reflected simply in the way it enhanced the mild, chewy slices of pork itself. And beneath it all, an abundance of glass noodles to add slurp to the chew & bite of the meats & veggies.

One soup is not a lot to go on, but it’s enough to ensure that Pho Lien Hoa will be my first stop upon landing at the ever-optimistically named Will Rogers World Airport (there are about 12 gates total; as Rogers himself said, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer”).

Pho Lien Hoa on Urbanspoon

****
Of course, this is still a red state, with cows & oilwells & televangelists & shit; true ‘cue can be found all over the place. But not in a former college bookstore run by a hospitality group. (Real pitmasters don’t wear their corporate values on their sleeves. Hell, they don’t even usually wear sleeves.) There, instead, you’ll find Iron Starr Urban Barbeque, whose menu consists of 1 approximately barbecue classic (ribs, brisket, pulled pork, etc.) to every 4 plates of cornmeal-dusted rock shrimp with jicama slaw or molasses-glazed salmon. In short, this isn’t a barbecue joint, it’s a contemporary American cafe. As such, it’s just fine. As I knew it would be; the way-savvy owners of terrific gourmet shop Forward Foods, my dining companions Wampus & Suzy, wouldn’t steer me wrong.

Though we all had our misgivings upon the arrival of our appetizer of bacon-wrapped quail breast.

ISquail
Before they could crawl off the plate & squirt us in the eyes with their instant paralyzing venom, we just had to stab the obscene little reanimated body parts in their sore spots & rip ’em in half with our teeth. Turns out suppurating leeches taste pretty good, charred here, unctuous there & slicked with apricot-serrano jam.

Meanwhile, get a load of this “salad.”

ISsalad

Apparently employing mathematical formulae to determine the smallest ratio of vegetable to protein necessary to equal a salad, they actually scooped out the iceberg wedge to make room for a building block of blue cheese & pecans “spiced,” presumably, with lots of butter & brown sugar. I can’t pretend the mixture wasn’t a heady one, right down to the swirling of the pecan drippings into the bacon-blue cheese vinaigrette. The tenderloin, grilled nice & rare, was really just the icing on this guilty-pleasure cake.

As for Wampus’s rib dinner,

ISribs
the description of the house specialty sounds a note of warning in promising “fall-off-the-bone perfection.” In fact, the meat on perfect ribs should not fall off, a sign of overcooking; it should slide clean off. And though the St. Louis–cut pork ribs are supposedly smoked for 24 hours over hickory & pecan, they lacked a well-defined smoke ring. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t competition material. I didn’t try his mac & cheese or “slaw” of seasoned browned onions, jalapenos & I’m not sure what all else, but the latter looked to me like the best thing on the plate.

A bit dry at the edges, the cornbread was otherwise decent, studded with whole kernels.

IScornbread
But dessert was the surprise highlight. We split the buttermilk pie

ISbuttermilkpie
& the 7-layer chocolate cake topped with truffles,

IRchocolatecake

& if neither was the intricate stuff of a brilliant pastry chef, both were wholly satisfying, well-textured (I feared the cake might be a bit dry too, but it wasn’t) & clear-flavored for being so rich.

Ultimately, if it’s true ‘cue you’re craving, I’d check out this guy’s suggestions, adding my beloved Bob’s Pig Shop to the roster (see here, here & here), & maybe Midwest City’s Mr. Spriggs, if for no other reason than to reward them for the greatest ad ever. For an easygoing bar & grill experience, however, you could certainly do worse than Iron Starr.

Iron Starr Urban Barbecue on Urbanspoon

How I Gobbled & Guzzled My Way Through NYC, Part 3: The Bummers (Marseille, 5 Napkin Burger, Via della Pace)

To reiterate from Parts 1 & 2, the Director & I tend to travel without a map for better or worse, especially when it comes to dining. And while I hear 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, for every 2 brilliant sashays forward, we took 1 boring step back throughout our most recent trip to NYC.

***On the one hand, on our first full day in the city, Marseille’s light, bright vibe

Marseilles2
& breezy bistro menu matched our own sunny mood, so we sailed in for brunch. On the other hand, though I couldn’t quite see where, some wisp of corporate smoke hung in the air—some sensation that the place leaned more toward Theater District tourists than Hell’s Kitchen coolkats.

It permeated the food. From the pretty assortment of mixed breakfast breads, I sampled 2 mini-muffins,

Marseillesbread

which were probably apple walnut spice muffins, but if you’d told me they were actually pumpkin or banana I’d have said okay then. They were fine, just not distinctive.

Marseillessalad
Unpleasantly sharp mustard vinaigrette marked an unruly salad of whole Bibb lettuce leaves & toasted hazelnuts.

And the seafood burger I had my heart set on

Marseillesseafoodburger
was as dry & bland as the description was juicy: filler eclipsed the Moroccan-spiced salmon, shrimp & scallops, as did a too-salty rouille.

Though I yell the Director for always ordering boring old omelettes, his omelette Lorraine with bacon, comté & caramelized onions was the best of the bunch—

Marseillesomelet

gooey & goodie-filled & accompanied by potatoes fried with just enough salsa verde to tinge them with herbs rather than coat them in sauce they didn’t need.

Better still was the fact that he got 2. When a neighboring diner accidentally bumped into our table, knocking the Director’s glass of prosecco all over the 2/3-eaten dish, our server promptly whisked it away & replaced it with a fresh one (refilling the wine as well, of course). If cheerfully polished service were all I cared about, I’d be totally down with Marseille.

Marseille on Urbanspoon

***
If cheerfully polished service were all I cared about, I’d stay far, far away from 5 Napkin Burger.

What a difference a day made—24 hours since our meal at Marseille, we ventured in to this much-ballyhooed upscale burger joint from under a raw, drizzly sky to be met by a gray, chilly server whose lack of professional as well as personal skills was downright nauseating. Oh, wait—that was my hangover. Having pounded a bottle of Los Amantes mezcal with friends the night before, it was pounding me back so cruelly I had to train my gaze on the table throughout the entire meal because looking up hurt.

To be fair, then, the Director & I had a skewed view of the brunch menu. Under less wretched circumstances, I’d have sampled specialty after specialty: deep-fried pickles & pastrami with sauerkraut & mustard oil, matzoh brei, & of course a 5-napkin 2-hander—perhaps the Italian turkey burger with mozzarella & vinegar peppers. Instead I stuck with the only things I thought I could stomach: mac & cheese with gruyère & leek cream

5NBmac
&, the damnedest thing, a strawberry milkshake for the 1st time in, what, a quarter-century?

5NBshake2

The $5.50 shaker contained enough for 2 glasses—enough to begin to contain my own shakes with its cool smoothness. But did it burst with fresh-churned cream & ripe strawberries? Nah; even if its ice cream was housemade, I dunno that I could’ve distinguished it from Dairy Queen in a taste test. (Not to knock the DQ; the 1st amateur review I ever wrote, back in high school over 20 years ago, was an ode to the Blizzard.) Likewise, the 1st few bites of mac & cheese did the tummy-coating trick, but the dish lacked panache, from the granular texture of the cheese sauce to the tiny styrofoamy croutons.

As for the Director’s, yes, omelette with bacon, cheddar & onions, of which I didn’t bother to snap a pic: at a whopping $13.50, it was (paradoxically) nondescript in the extreme, the very picture of the oft-heard complaint about going out & paying for something you can make better at home for cheaper.

Far be it from me to contradict the New York Times, New York Post & Time Out New York in one fell swoop; I’m sure the burger really is the bomb. But if I were ever to go back to try it, I’d choose my wait section wisely. (Keep your eye peeled for a body-building giant with a bit of a lisp; we overheard him interacting with his customers, & he seemed every bit as caring & alert as our Jon Leguziamo lookalike was laconic & lethargic.)

Five Napkin Burger on Urbanspoon

***
We’d been circling & circling the East Village for an hour or 2 in search of That Place—the one whose lights twinkled starlike & woods gleamed like late-day sunbeams & menu promised the moon. The one with that quiet, candlelit booth in the corner where a couple could slide in, sidle close, share a look that says, “This is the place,” & fall in love all over again over a simple, honest, memorable dish or 2.

Via della Pace wasn’t it.

And though it looked the part, deep down I knew it wouldn’t be. Though we were surrounded by native Italian speakers & some deliciously cheesy Italian pop was playing softly & the chalkboard menu listed an Amarone by the glass, deep down I knew we were just tired & ready to settle for disappointment.

Maybe the T-shirts were the giveaway.

I have a working theory, first hatched at Denver’s erstwhile Mark & Isabella, that, outside of a deli, sub shop or BBQ joint, staff tees bearing sassy slogans—in this case, “Make Food, Not War”—are a bad sign, namely of concern for style over substance, brand over product. Sure enough, the fruits of an interesting menu emphasizing numerous bruschette & focacce fell splat.

Remembering back to my time in Lecce, where most every trattoria & osteria offered a sideboard array of meats, cheeses & the brightest, freshest, ripest grilled & pickled vegetables in the whole wide world to start a meal in simple yet spectacular fashion, I honed in the veggie antipasto. What I got was the limpest, least common denominator thereof.

LVDPveggies

Generous slabs of decent smoked mozz were the saving grace of old, overcooked eggplant, mushy zucchini, watery roasted peppers & greasy supermarket Kalamatas. (A few stalks of al dente asparagus were okay, but hardly compensatory.) It came with a basket of tasteless bread that I hoped wasn’t a foreshadowing of my main course.

But it was.

LVDPfocaccia2
LVDPfocaccia1
The pizzalike flatbread I’d pictured when I ordered the focaccia Nerone with grilled chicken, fontina, yellow tomatoes, red onion & thyme instead arrived as a giant cold sandwich. Granted, the menu specifies that it can be served warm or cold, & I asked the server to bring it at whichever temperature she recommended. But she chose wrong.

Grilled virtually dry, the focaccia may as well have been a packaged white sandwich roll, entirely devoid of the olive-oil savor & quilted softness of the good fresh stuff.  Within were 3 uncut, chewy half-breasts of chicken, raw onion & bits of cheese that seemed sort of stuck on like sequins. The tomato alone lent moisture & tang. Talk about sloppy seconds.

The Director’s gnocchi with gorgonzola & walnuts was certainly adequate,

LVDPgnocchi

the dumplings soft & not too dense, although not quite as light as the ideal.

We’d have finished with a digestivo, but when I asked about their amari selection the waitress brought me a dessert menu, & that was that. In an East Village Italian ristorante, you’d better know your amari from your ass cheeks.

Via Della Pace on Urbanspoon

How I Gobbled & Guzzled My Way Through NYC, or, How I Hope to Be Dining & Drinking in Denver a Year Hence, Part 2: Il Punto, Stecchino, Grand Central Oyster Bar

***It’s a long & winding ride! Hold tight!***

As I admitted in Part 1, my genuine belief in the ever-restless, ever-curious Chowhound ethos notwithstanding, the Director & I tend to like to be where we are while on vacation. So long as we’re comfortable, if somewhere else is better, bully for it, we don’t really care.

Since our hotel was at W. 39th & 9th, where we often were in Manhattan was Hell’s Kitchen. And since we had such a charming experience at the 1st place we stopped, not an hour after we’d arrived in town & all of half a block from our lodgings, for a drink & a couple of appetizers (1 of which, the crudo di seppie, became last week’s Dish of the Week), we decided to return that same night for digestivi & a couple of nights later for the works.

Apparently known until recently as Osteria Gelsi, Il Punto occupies a welcoming if not particularly assuming storefront on 9th Ave.—snug space, dark woods, white tablecloths, the usual. And while the bar was no more unusual with its decorative scattering of magnums of Rosso di Montalcino & half-bottles of Amarone & such, the large assortment of liquori & amari behind the bar is precisely the sort of hallmark of East Coast Italian dining that I hope to encounter more often here in Denver, sooner rather than later.

IPamari
Bellying up upon arrival, we couldn’t help but make the too-easy comparison between our ponytailed, thick-accented waiter & Furio from The Sopranos. Should’ve gotten his name—quick to smile & banter (though not to interrupt), he was a pleasure throughout our 2 rounds of drinks & the aforementioned appetizers, the other of which was the equally simple, almost as good pulpo su bruschetta,

IPoctopus
literally “octopus on bruschetta” but obviously more like a salad with tenderly meaty coins of grilled tentacle, frisée, black olivers, capers & caperberries, red onion & tomato, ringed by a few crostini. If the presentation wasn’t exactly polished & the toasts a bit too hard on the teeth, the octopus mixture itself was bright & lively, drizzled in lemon juice cut with just a few drops of moistening olive oil.

Settling up to explore a bit more before dinner, I couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with the bill until we hit the street—Furio had only charged us for 1 round of drinks. Mistake? Gracious gesture? It was partly to find out that we headed back for a nightcap—only to have him pour us, explicitly this time, yet another round on the house.

And 48 hours later, when our waitress was taking our drink order, he waved to our table & smiled, pointing to the bottle of Oban the Director favored as if to say, “I’ve got you covered.” Oh, that Furio. He sure was, for lack of the Italian equivalent, a real mensch.

As, for lack of a female equivalent, was the waitress—though it was she who asked me if I understood, when I ordered the piselle con seppie for an appetizer, that seppie was baby squid, throwing me all off track; as I explained in the aforelinked Dish of the Week post, I actually understand it to be cuttlefish.

What it definitely was was delicious, so dilemma solved—unless, that is, you consider the disturbing fact that a baby cuttlefish appears to be the cutest freaking thing on earth.

Baby cuttlefish

Good thing they didn’t look like that in my bowl of pea soup. Actually, my bowl of pea soup didn’t look like a bowl of pea soup, at least not the creamy split standard:

IPpeasoup
Instead, every spoonful of the wonderful broth was redolent with the greenness of fresh peas & herbs, perfectly light on the notes of chicken, salt & pepper. It was one of those rare dishes that exudes such wholesomeness you feel as though you should be eating it in the sunny kitchen nook of a rustic farmhouse amid rolling hills a century ago, with a glass of buttermilk.

Which made it the ideal yin to the yang that followed.

IPtimballo
The timballo (yeah, yeah, like Big Night) is the house specialty—& with obvious reason. If the crust of the drum-shaped (hence the name) dish looked a little dark to me, it proved just right, its toasty crunch a striking contrast to the melting interior—5 or 6 alternating layers of ribbon pasta, besciamella (did you know the Italians, not the French, invented béchamel? True story) & meat ragù (I’d guess a typical mix of beef, pork & veal) as well as parmesan.

My own educated feeling is that timballi constitute the rare occasion in which all expectations for al dente pasta are misplaced. Here, the noodles naturally become one with their sauces, to the most comforting, chewy-slurpy effect imaginable. But to say they become one with the rest is not to say they disappear into it; on the contrary, the beauty of Il Punto’s version was that neither the rich white nor the perfectly balanced red sauce—in which the meat enhanced rather than dominated the tomato—took up more than their share of mouthspace relative to the pasta.

By unfortunate contrast, the dipping sauce with the Director’s calamari fritti was too thin to properly coat the breading; with any staying power, its nice little red pepper kick might have overcome the deficiencies of the bland, overdone squid rings.

IPcalamari

He had somewhat better luck with the strozzapreti al sugo di cinghiale.

IPstrozzapreti
Strozzapreti means “priest strangler,” & while Wikipedia cites a few apocryphal explanations for the name, I could swear I learned in cooking school that it derived from the pasta’s resemblance to a clerical collar (from the hole end, you can kinda see it). In any case, classic wild boar ragù often has an agrodolce (sweet & sour—although the literal translation is “soursweet”) savor, & this one was no exception; nice as it was, too bad the ratio of pasta to sauce wasn’t ideal. It’s true that Italians, unlike Americans, don’t positively deluge their pasta, but this seemed a bit stingy.

Overall, though, Il Punto’s a lovely little place “where the Kitchen Aromas swirl into the dinning room like an Italian culunary tale,” to quote the misspelling-riddled website, that probably suffers from comparisons to famed Esca nearby, though it’s 10 times more accessible.

IL PUNTO Ristorante on Urbanspoon

***
The same goes for Stecchino, another mostly likeable Italian eatery in Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, its menu was so appealing I could overlook my thorough contempt for its wishful billing as “An Italian Speakeasy.” First of all, the whole trend toward speakeasies annoys me in the same way the gastropub trend annoyed the Westword’s much-missed Jason Sheehan. Technically, a speakeasy is a place where alcohol is illegally sold, so if you’re calling your joint a speakeasy, you’d better be able to literally transport me back to the Prohibition era the moment I walk in, or I ain’t buying it. But second, even by the extended contemporary definition that includes bars like PDT whose entrances are supposedly secret, Stecchino, with a perfectly well-marked & accessible storefront on a major avenue, doesn’t qualify in the least. If it’s a speakeasy, so is every other alcohol vendor on the block. The word becomes meaningless in that context.

But as a bar & restaurant, Stecchino (which means “toothpick”) has a number of things going for it, from rather rococo craft cocktails to a repertoire I’d have liked to sample more thoroughly: chicken liver & wild mushroom crostini, calamari with squid ink–chili butter, pork braciola—a new-to-me variant on the usual beef—etc. As it was, a trio of pastas went down nicely.

Stecchinomezzaluna

A ramekin of green peppercorn crème fraîche distinguished this appetizer of 3 pan-fried mezzalune stuffed with lamb shank; not only did the combo of lamb & sour dairy offer some Near Eastern flair, but it turned what would otherwise be eaten with a fork into a fun finger food. (Granted, I can turn anything into a fun finger food given enough wine, but still.)

Had I been in a less laidback mood, the fact that it arrived simultaneously with our main courses would have rankled, but that was the only glitch in the otherwise smooth service. Mostly smooth, too, were the entrees themselves. Though the inclusion of soppressata in the rabbit & black olive ragù that topped the Director’s fresh pappardelle was what intrigued me most about the dish on paper, it strangely didn’t really register on the palate; still, with herbed ricotta smeared in, the dish as a whole had enough rustic heartiness to go around.

Stecchinopappardelle1

By contrast, it was the use of prosciutto butter as a sauce for my Swiss chard, crescenza & walnut ravioli that got me all excited, but in fact rendered the whole a little too salty. Were the chef to ease up on any extra salt in the recipe, he/she would have a truly stellar dish; the earthy, nutty & creamy combo, enhanced by the perfectly textured pasta, was otherwise bold.

Stecchinoravioli

Much appreciated were the little touches too—a dark crusted sourdough, a hot buttered rum made for me by special request, though it wasn’t on the drink list.

Stecchinobread StecchinoHBR

In world’s most competitive market, Stecchino may not have that something special, that brio, that je ne sais quoi it needs to survive. But it’ll be pleasant enough while it lasts.

Stecchino on Urbanspoon

***
Not having been there since I was a but a tot, I got this bug in my ear to drag the Director to the world-famous Grand Central Oyster Bar. Pal Ben warned me it was a tourist mill—& it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a kick, from its celebrated vaulted ceiling on down.

GCOB
Actually, there’s much on the enormous, daily-changing menu to admire; scattered among the usual raw bar, fresh catch & deep-fried suspects are some surprisingly funky offerings—pan-fried bay scallops with raisin–blue cheese butter & pecans, for instance, or

GCOBoysters
broiled Pipe’s Cove oysters with candied ginger butter (even if it tasted more like herb butter).

In fact we ordered up a storm, the best of it being the marinated Dutch herring with mustard-dill dressing.

GCOBherring
If “marinated” here was a bit of a euphemism for “pickled,” it was a fair one, in so far as these wonderfully oily fish were only lightly sweet & sour; the mustard-dill sauce, too, was on the mildly sweet side, & while I’m all for cheek-slapping pungency, the gentle treatment made for a memorable departure from the norm.

The Idaho brook trout with horseradish cream was likewise smoked softly enough to maintain its freshwater character & remain about as delicate as smoked fish can be. And hey, how ’bout these presentations, eh? Curly parsley garnish, lettuce leaf,

GCOBtrout

tumbler full of horseradish with a plastic spoon,

GCOBhorseradish

paper cups for the cocktail sauce & mignonette, lemon wedges willy nilly. Classic. To be fair, raw sea urchin in the shell truly is a sight to behold (wacked-out close-up here), & a treat to poke around in, like your own little edible tidepool. It’s something I’m still learning to appreciate with my mouth, with its tonguelike texture & musty taste, but I am learning, and my eyes can never get enough of that handsome space devil.

GCOBraw

Our luck ran out in Round 2, though, as I asked the waiter whether he recommended the fried whole clams or the fried scallops, knowing that he’d vote for the twice-as-expensive latter. He did, & they were a total drag, barely a cut above freezer fare (& the fries weren’t even that much).

GCOBscallops

Still, it wouldn’t have been a complete experience without at least one ripoff. Here’s to ya, old joint.

Grand Central Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

How I Gobbled & Guzzled My Way Through NYC, or, How I Hope to Be Dining & Drinking in Denver a Year Hence, Part 1: The Breslin, Sip Sak, Spain Restaurant

“So,” asked my friend Ben gleefully, “where are you going & where have you been?”

“Well,” answered I sheepishly, “Good question…”

The truth is that, unlike the irrepressible Ben, who researches every nook & cranny of his own city & those of every city he visits for The Best Places to Eat & maps out his itinerary beforehand, The Director & I maintain a strict no-reservations policy. One could say that’s highly adventurous of us, & sometimes it is; other times, however, it’s sheer laziness & self-indulgence. As antithetical as it is to my otherwise Chowhoundish stance, we’re not inclined to commit either to prix fixes à la per se that require months of advance financial prep nor to frantic hauls by 2 trains & 3 buses ISO the best Albanian in the Bronx, however hypothalamus-blowing, if there’s a clean, well-lighted bar within a few feet of us—which, of course, in Manhattan, there generally is.

But between a few swell recommendations & even more strokes of great luck, we pulled off one hell of a culinary tour—one that I hope proves a blueprint for Denver’s dining future.

***
Granted, vibewise, The Breslin in the new, hard-&-loudly-rockin’ Ace Hotel actually owes a lot to the Wild West saloon; Denverites might recognize in it a sort of neo-Buckhorn Exchange or bygone Central City boarding house.

Breslin1 Breslin3
Click to enlarge

Foodwise, meanwhile, ownership by Ken Friedman & April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig says it all: The Breslin falls confidently within the nose-to-tail gastropub tradition of the past decade—the same one that’s still so new & all-confounded here in Denver. When the folks behind Rack & Rye, Colt & Gray, Jonesy’s Eat Bar, Argyll, etc. who are currently stepping forth so gingerly on their trotters finally find solid footing (& some of them are close), I’ve no doubt they’ll be nailing the chitlins & the grilled tongue, the bubble & squeak & the pickled pork rinds too. May a place like this be their model.

Though we could only do so much damage at lunch, we managed destruction enough via pork in 3 forms.

Peanuts boiled in pork fat

Breslinpeanutsdidn’t need the extra salt—they were peanuts boiled in pork fat, for chrissakes! But twisting open the shells to get to the warm, softened nuggets inside made for a reverie-scented ritual I could’ve continued all afternoon; & you know how gastro-hipsters are always going on & on about the combo of peanut butter & bacon? Think that, but for grown-ups.

And if the large terrine board doesn’t turn out to be Dish of the Week, I must in be for a fantastic shock this weekend.

Breslinterrines
From guinea hen with morels & pork with pistachios to rabbit (albeit without the advertised prunes) & head cheese, we nearly decimated all 8 slabs. There’s not much to say about a great terrine; you’re either into molded, seasoned, fat-wrapped minced meat or you’re not, & it’s easy even for a newbie to discern a more or less spreadable, well-constructed slice from its gristly, sloppy inferior. These were of course the former, served with irresistible Brit-style piccalilli—sweetish mustard-sauced cauliflower, onion & pepper—as well as cornichons, whole-grain mustard, & incredibly chewy bread, almost too crusty for practicality’s sake but fun to tear through nonetheless.

I swear I’ll book my next trip to NY ASAP in anticipation of returning to The Breslin for a marathon of debauchery alone—not least because the service was so fine: when you consider that a) this appears to be 1 of the hottest spots in the town of towns right now & b) we were there on the crazy-making 1st day of Restaurant Week,  the staff’s down-to-earth attentiveness was a rare treat in itself.

Breslin Bar & Dining Room on Urbanspoon

***
When I whined to Ben about how much I missed Turkish food, he had 2 words for me: Sip Sak. Sounds like a liquor-store novelty for sneaking into sports arenas, but it’s actually the signature eatery of renowned (not least, or so I hear, in his own mind) Istanbul-born restaurateur Orhan Yegen.

Between his midlevel fame & the midtown east address, I wasn’t expecting a drab hole, but nor was I expecting a light, airy, modern space bustling with waiters in white & buzzing with the shop talk of sharp-dressed businessmen, as opposed to as something sumptuously cap-E Ethnic. If I hadn’t known, I’d have guessed just by looking it was a French bistro serving omelettes aux truffes & croques monsieurs.

But I’m so glad it was serving taramasalata & baba ghanoush instead, with pide, a sort of Turkish cross between focaccia & pita.

SStaramasalata SSeggplant
Click to enlarge 

Sure to figure heavily on my deathbed menu, taramasalata is a staple meze made from fish roe (always red, never black, so far as I know) mixed with plenty of olive oil, lemon juice & bread or mashed potato. It is needless to say, pungent—salty & tangy by turns. Though this one was a little too much of the former & too little of the latter for my tastes, an extra squirt of lemon did the trick, boosted by the dreamy texture, whipped rather than dense. As for the eggplant: does any vegetable absorb the essence of the grill better than that fat sexy black nightshade does? I think not. It, too, was unusually light on the spoon, & impressively subtle on the tongue—just blushing with the funk of tahini & smoke rather than bogged down in it.

To supplement those good old Med standards, I ordered a first for me: hot yogurt soup (yayla çorbasi). What I got was this:

SSlentilsoup

Though I was a bit surprised by the hue, since I’d never had it, I didn’t know I’d actually received red lentil soup until I took a bite. Okay, 2, because hey, free sample! But nice & fine though it was—a classic version, with a slight lemon bite—I waved down the waiter to correct the mistake, & wound up with this,

SSyogurtsoup
which itself was a bit of a surprise, since I was imagining something thick & creamy. This was more like yogurt broth, & every bit as intriguing as it looked. All the recipes I’ve looked up, like this one, contain rice as a thickener & mint as the lone seasoning; Yegen’s liberal spicing, I’m convinced, was more complex, balancing the natural sourness.

The menu compared it to a quesadilla, but the description didn’t do justice to the Director’s gözleme. These minced, spiced lamb & beef–stuffed, griddled wedges of phyllo (yufka) were thicker, softer & oilier (which isn’t really to say greasier) than their Mexican counterpart, & paired with a mixed green salad in a light, lemony (natch) vinaigrette & a dollop of thick yogurt dip (which you can see the peak of above the leaves). The only unsatisfying thing about the dish was that it didn’t spontaneously regenerate upon the last bite.

SSquesadilla

The name escapes me now, but the gist of the Director’s entree will linger on in m mind.

SSlamb
Like a giant adana kebab, it was basically a grilled lamb patty over a sort of pide panzanella, drizzled with yogurt & a light tomato sauce—each forkful a juicy rich mess.

If such stuff is to be found anywhere in Denver, I haven’t found it yet. Word to the entrepreneurs.

Sip Sak on Urbanspoon

***
“I’ve cracked the code!” yelled my friend Matt in his enthusiasm over

Spain this West Village old-timer,

getting the Director all riled up, his agitation mounting until we made it there. Without spilling Matt’s private beans, I’ll just tell you that the more you drink, the more they feed you—compliments of the house. And you want to keep drinking, because this house is for real—so real it seems fake, the arthouse ideal of a Spanish rendezvous circa 1965: snug, brick-walled, & dim-lit, run by shuffling, near-silent gray old men. I could’ve kissed the one behind the bar, white-haired & unsmiling in his red jacket—not least because the photo on the wall behind him portrayed a man behind the bar, brown-haired & unsmiling in his red jacket. Forty years & not a thing out of place.

With 4 rounds of wine, I’m not sure we got everything regulars get—but after lunch at The Breslin, we didn’t need it. We couldn’t have been happier with our wedge of tortilla espanola,

Spaintortilla

a double serving of thin-sliced patatas bravas & wonderfully simple, so-browned albondigas in onion gravy that I dared the Director to dare me to drink from the dish, so he did, so I did. All that for—wait for it, wait for it—24 bucks. If you poked me now, days later, I’d still fall over.

Spaintapas
Rest assured that next time we go, we’ll “make it to the end,” to quote Matt, “like in a drinking & tapas video game.”

Spain on Urbanspoon

Chewing Through the Q Part 3: The Barley Room & The Council Room, Albuquerque

Continued from Parts 1 & 2.

***

ABQ’s studded with gems of the hidden, threadbare, take-no-vanilla-tongued-prisoners variety.

The Barley Room isn’t 1 of them, & neither is The Council Room. But they do have their advantages.

The former’s in a strip mall that also contains a church (this city’s the sad capital of convenience storehouses of worship); as Sunday-dressed believers were streaming out, jersey-clad believers were streaming in to the bar to catch the Steelers game against the Ravens. Dozens were already rallied round the TV when we entered; I half-wondered if we’d walked into a private party. But no, 1 of the 2 or 3 blonde-ponytailed waitresses waved us toward a row of booths where we could grab a bite & the WiFi signal we’d really come for.

Service at a sports bar is rarely more than pleasantly competent—but at the Barley, it was extra-pleasantly competent. Our waitress not only thoroughly answered questions about the menu, cheerfully going to the kitchen to follow up when needed be (more than once), but also, after realizing she’d brought me lime instead of the lemon I’d requested with my first soda, accompanied each of several refills with fresh wedges of both—not those unwieldy thin slices but pieces I could squeeze.

Food at a sports bar is rarely more than pleasantly competent either—but once again, it was extra-pleasantly competent at the Barley. A cup of posole, if not exactly pretty, was chunky with pork & hominy that almost seemed as though it had been pan-fried before it was added—is that possible?—& was quite spicy to boot, with a bonus splotch of hot sauce on top. The pretzels, though surely not housemade, were not the expected stale chewtoys but proved soft beneath a glistening crust seemingly brushed with butter. The cheese dip was pure crap, but deliberately so, I imagine—what’s a sports bar, after all, but a glorified off-site concession stand?

BRposole BRpretzels

The Director’s huevos rancheros, a Sunday special, was really rather guapo, with thick, meaty slices of bacon, eggs fried to a crispy edge, & green chile that, like the posole, didn’t pussyfoot around.

BRhuevos
The Barley Room, then, is a woody, sudsy change of pace from the coffeehouses in the Northeast Quadrant—no more, but no less either. Unless, of course, you’re a Steelers fan or a local music groupie—then, maybe, it’s a whole lot more; just check out that weekend line-up on the above-linked home page! Stratus Phear, ladies, am I right? And how ’bout those specials on the NFL Sunday Ticket brunch buffet?

Yet as clichés of Americana at its most middlebrow go, even the strip mall sports bar might not have much on the casino dining room—not the hilariously depressing slot jockey’s self-serve buffet or the seemingly glitzy but secretly desperate high roller’s bottle-service boîte, mind you, but the happily compromising sit-down option in between. The version at the Sandia Casino, the Council Room, does look like the official photo below, minus the clean-cut smiling couples; mismatched families like mine seem to be the norm.

Councilindex_smll

What separates it from your average bar & grill, besides location, is the Indian fry bread bar,

CRfrybread
which would have been a terrific twist on the familiar taco/nacho station if the bread had been hot & fresh. It wasn’t. But the dips & spreads in fair array—about 8 of them—showed some flair, among them black bean salsa, mango salsa, chipotle salsa, salsa verde, guacamole & a queso or 2.

Entrée salads were better than my pictures indicate. The shrimp louis on the left came with fresh sliced beets & asparagus spears as well as jumbo shrimp & what seemed to be housemade 1000 Island dressing in its totally unnecessary taco shell; the adequate taco salad on the right made for a welcome flashback to 1988, when edible containers were oh-so-cool.

CRshrimplouie CRtacosalad

Margaritas had nothing unusual going for them but a change of glass, which I actually appreciated—the standard big-bowled stemware’s a bitch for a lush to maneuver. And what’s a casino if not a place for a lush to negotiate?

CRmarg

The Barley Room on UrbanspoonCouncil Room Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Chewing Through the Q Part 2: Nob Hill Bar & Grill & Flying Star Café, Albuquerque

Continued from Part 1.

***

A few years back, reverting to your typical girly-girlihood in the throes of heartbreak & loneliness, I fled Boston for ABQ to spend the holidays with my daddy, who whisked me to what was then the city’s Place to Be, Ambrozia, for a New Year’s Eve blowout. It was a feast to remember, so when I saw chef-owner Sam Etheridge’s name crop up again following Ambrozia’s closing in connection with a new, far more casual venture called Nob Hill Bar & Grill, I put it at the top of my to-go list.

By the time I got there, however, for reasons that remain a mystery (at least to Google), he had left, all trace of his role erased from the website. So if it was someplace special to begin with—as a blog I trust suggests it was—it’s now a reliably enjoyable contemporary American joint, nothing more, nothing less.

Emphasis on “nothing less,” really. My initial wariness about the semi-sleek, clubby vibe—though somewhat justified here & here—eww—melted away with the arrival of the “frizzled fried green beans with black bean sauce & Sriracha queso.”

NHgreenbeans

If the description was a bit overdone—frizzled & fried, both? What, like a pothead with a perm?—its referent was just right, the beans still fresh-&-garden-green-tasting in their hot, greaseless, seasoned shells & accompanied by Mex-seeming but Asian-leaning dips—the creamy queso gone fiery with its namesake Thai hot sauce, the black bean sauce not refritos but the funky fermented stuff of Chinese cuisines, a little bit sweet & a lot bit hot.

Along similar lines, the veggie burger was the most savory I’ve had in recent memory.

NHveggieburger

Okay, I haven’t had any in recent memory, but there’s a fair reason for that—the patties on most veggie burgers, even the rare housemade ones, are as gritty as packed sand. Not so Nob Hill’s. Thick & moist with edamame & mushrooms; topped with soy-browned onions, avocado & pretty sprouts; & served on a nutty whole wheat bun smeared with ginger-lime mayo, it, like the green beans, showed enough freshly imagined (& smoothly executed) touches to reawaken the dead-tired cliché of comfort food with a gourmet twist!, at least for the length of the meal.

Same went for the meatloaf stuffed with mozzarella and bacon, both smoked.

NHmeatloaf

And that’s just the half-portion!

Soothingly rich if not as full of surprises, it came with respectable caramelized shallot gravy & garlic mashed, plus a perfectly retro little bundle of buttered aspargus & baby carrots. When you can see the individual grains of S&P on each glistening vegetable, you can rest assured the cook is in the zone (&, of course, that he’s using kosher or sea salt & freshly cracked pepper. The voice of Chef Stephan telling my class that iodized salt was for lawn care still rings in my ears sometimes).

I’ve said before I order dessert under only 2 circumstances: 1) a meal so satisfying I don’t want it to end, be it at a roadside or a 4-star; 2) a meal so unsatisfying I’m going all in on the off-chance of salvaging something from the experience. It was the former scenario, then, that led to a faceful of flourless chocolate cake, a sweet I loathe on principle as the fad that would not fade (what’s it been, 10 years?) but, admittedly, like all right on contact, especially when it’s basically a pair of fudge squares under an alias. And they were only part of the Irish Car Bomb,

NHdessert
the rare dessert inspired by a cocktail rather than the other way around. It came together—or, I guess, blew apart—with a scoop of not only Guinness ice cream but also smooooth Bailey’s mousse & a drizzle of Irish whiskey caramel, forming a little playground (heady heap of rubble, if you must) of possible combos.

Still, if Nob Hill is a place to go, Flying Star Café is a place to stay (or rather, since it’s a local franchise, several places to stay), not because the food is better—it’s not, although Albuquerqueans consistently vote its bakery tops in city polls—but because each branch offers free WiFi & an excellently eclectic magazine selection (hooray, Found!) in a colorful, vaguely retro setting. Since my dad’s house offers none of the above, I wind up at Flying Star a lot when I’m visiting—which is a lot lately, so that’s a lot times a lot. In fact, I gave its housemade English muffins a nod a while back; they constitute a large part of my ABQ diet, along with sides of greasy-good green chile–turkey sausage. An order consists of 2 sizzling 3-inch patties, together about as big as a small burger—which is what you’ve got if you put them on the muffin & slather it with butter. I do like a slapdash breakfast burger now & then.

The muffin also comes with the Spanish omelet.

FSSpanishomelet Per the menu, this should be “big & fat.”

Whipped with garlic & layered with sliced potatoes, Swiss & scallions, it’s a thin version of tortilla española in every sense, being too dry, but the flavor’s good, & the smoked chipotle salsa adds moisture (although, as is the case with many of the parsimoniously portioned condiments at Flying Star, you’ll have to ask 1 of the friendly, constantly circulating floor staffers for extra).

Actually, my father’s complaint about Flying Star is that they overemphasize the house baked goods, so that the hummus plate, say, becomes a rye bread plate with some dip.

FlyingStarhummus

In this particular case I agree with him—I ordered the hummus plate for the hummus, so I’d rather the decent, if a bit coarse, namesake had been front & center, not least since it was supposed to come with pita, not rye. But the loaves really are the franchise’s forté, along with desserts. It also graces the otherwise severely plain tuna melt, whose Swiss was scarce, & coleslaw.

FlyingStartunamelt
Of Flying Star’s 8 salads (including the hummus plate above), the ridiculous Greek Goddess is my fave,

FSGreeksalad

what with batter-fried feta tots—a cheap ploy that works, dammit—& tangy avocado vinaigrette (plus always appreciated slices of lemon).

But after all my visits to Flying Star, I’ve yet to have either a wildly wonderful or a totally miserable meal—so I’ve never bothered to try any of the celebrated desserts, in keeping with my general rule. Guess I should break it just to see what all the fuss is about. Until then…happy holidays, all.

***
UPDATE: Um, yeah, back at Flying Star again. Just polished off a damn good plate of fresh-baked biscuit, singular, & Cinderella-right gravy with the aforementioned kicky green chile–turkey sausage. It was so good, in fact, that that dessert might finally be in order as we speak…

FSbiscuitsgravy

Nob Hill Bar & Grill on UrbanspoonFlying Star Cafe (Academy Hills) on Urbanspoon

Chewing Through the Q Part 1: Blackbird Buvette & Cecilia’s Cafe, Albuquerque

Only in the past couple of years did some smarty-pants (the mayor, actually) come up with a nickname meant, I guess, to make ABQ seem super-funky-fresh—much to the apparent chagrin of locals who know better. ABQ is proudly built on ever-spreading layers of green chile & grime; it’s neither tourist- nor marketing-friendly.

But a Q kinda looks like an open mouth with a tongue hanging out, à la mine gaping at all the crazy cheap eats whenever I’m there—which is a lot lately—so it’s appropriate enough.

***

The Blackbird Buvette is not as all-fired stylish as either the Frenchified name (the word means “refreshment area”) or the backstory—it’s owned by raw-boned band The Dirty Novels—would suggest. It’s a borderline dive downtown that, on a Sunday afternoon, was empty but for a server, a barfly, & a fry cook who were hard to tell apart, except that the fry cook was the one who got up to toss my jalapeño bottle caps into the deep-fryer from, almost no doubt about it, the freezer & dump them in a basket with a side of bottled (I guess to go with the caps?) ranch.

Which isn’t to say they weren’t delicious—warm, greasy, crispy breading contrasting with hot-sour pepper slices & cool creaminess. As I’m learning from David A. Kessler’s The End of Overeating, more on which in another post, junk like this is so addictive because every last molecule of every ingredient, no matter how fattening, salty or sweet on its own, has been stretched, squeezed & skewered to contain even more fat, salt & sugar; even nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum as much as the processed food industry does. And even nature doesn’t tinker with our wiring as much as the processed food industry does, until we’re on the fritz of greedy frenzy.

BBbottlecaps2
Anyway, same went for the house burger with green chile & sweet potato fries; not all that much care went into their making—the smallish patty was cooked to medium-well, which is overdone as far as I’m concerned, & the spuds weren’t likely hand-cut. But then, a burger & fries don’t need a lot of love to come out basically okay.

BBburger2
And since it keeps 15 local brews on tap & hosts the Geeks Who Drink weekly, I guess the Blackbird Buvette comes out basically okay with the locals too.

For a real rib—& gut pit, & soul—sticking lunch, however, nearby Cecilia’s Cafe fares far better, as this humble little display with its all-in-good-fun award suggests.

Cecilias3

I covered the killer chiles rellenos here, but I was very nearly as enamored with my Indian taco.

Cecilia'sIndiantaco2

As with the chiles, the simplicity of the dish was so impressive; compared to the usual bowling ball of fried dough & shredded cheese you could practically take to the alley & win one for the team with, this one layered atop a gently fried disk little bigger than a burger bun only fresh green chile, lettuce, a little cheese & a whole lot of carne adovada, cubed pork made tender yet incendiary by marination. Especially juicy, it did soften the taco shell a bit too quickly—but I could overlook the loss of a little crunch for the gain of the kind of all-over mouthfeel that’s making me salivate to remember it, right this second.

The Blackbird Buvette on UrbanspoonCecilia's Cafe on Urbanspoon